Ezra Tessler: An angle to the place I live in
On ViewTops Gallery
January 22 – April 10, 2021
The title of Ezra Tessler’s first solo exhibition, comprised of 11 works spread across Tops Gallery’s two spaces, comes from a quote by poet Eamon Grennen. When asked about his identity as an Irishman who lives in New York, Grennen said “I live at a sort of distance, an angle to the place I live in.” Oblique references to place are woven through Tessler’s work; several pieces depict the sky as seen from particular vantage points, and titles like Lobster Cove (2020) and Ocean Point (2020) locate the work generally in the rural Northeast. But the angle of the title might also offer a slantwise way into a conversation about art, and an ethos for Tessler, in which primacy is given to neither image or form. Rather, an interdependence is fostered between ideas of painting and object. The joy and vibrancy of the work suggest that Tessler does this not to stake out a new position in this well-trod territory, or even to carve a path through it toward resolution, but rather to revel in the inbetweenness, for its own sake.
Two pieces, Basement relief (2020) and Wax museum (2019), have a dish-like, concave shape. In each, the image seems to tug at the form that holds it, lifting its edges from the wall toward the viewer. The other works swell at the center, suggesting pillows, abdomens, and other organic, convex shapes. There is a weight to these forms that implies a fullness, even a pregnancy, as the support seems to press against the image from the inside. This is especially pronounced in Evening at West Lane (2020), in which a vaguely torso-like form is bisected by a ribbon of alternating red and orange bands, suggesting vertebrae. Similarly, the graphic red and white shape in the center of Lobster Cove (2020) protrudes most at the bottom of its rounded form, as if gravity is pulling its belly down.
Whether convex or concave, the forms are animated by evidence of process. Tessler begins by making watercolor sketches, then builds a shaped frame with the contours of a particular watercolor in mind. The frames are composite forms, constructed from cotton pulp, wire mesh, aqua resin, and remnants of old frames. He then translates the watercolor sketch into sheets of abaca paper, which are poured, pressed, and painted with highly pigmented pulp. The wet paper is then dried onto its matching form, and often worked again with paint and more pulp. In any stage of the process, Tessler might prioritize developments in either surface or underlying support, and then adjust one to meet the other. This interplay is evident in the work’s irregular surfaces, as seams, dimples, patches, and bumps bear evidence of Tessler’s hand, reminding the viewer again of the constructed relationship between form and image.
Color floats on the works’ surfaces as touches of gouache and acrylic paint, but it is also a constitutive element of their construction, embedded thoroughly in the highly pigmented pulp that forms their skins. This rich saturation amplifies the eccentrically shaped forms and deepens the images held in tension with them. In Red sky (2020), a bright blue slash vibrates against an orange ground and seems to catapult through space toward the viewer, echoing the dynamism of the spikey form. The matte black marks that dot the piece absorb so much light, they appear to suck holes into its surface. In Small Cottage (2020), the bright blue returns, skimming across and wrapping around three sides of the fluorescent green lozenge shape, both containing and emphasizing its dimensionality. Color creates the images, and also responds to the forms. In this way, Tessler harnesses both the sensual pleasure and physicality of color, putting it to work in the conversation between image and object.
The exhibition continues at Tops’ nearby satellite location, a long and shallow window gallery situated in the nearby Madison Avenue Park. The space is a glazed box, a cross between an inaccessible storefront and a large vitrine. The angled wall at the back of the space is painted bright red and hung with seven rectangular forms, each painted a different solid shade of red or pink ranging from maroon to bubblegum to mauve. The chromatic treatment calls attention to the irregular, bumpy surfaces and organic edges of the paintings, foregrounding their depth and objecthood. With their fleshy colors and rounded lower corners, they suggest seven individual tongues sticking out from the wall. Collectively, they create a line that slopes upward from left to right, gesturing toward a place beyond the gallery and gently rhyming with the angle of the gallery’s orientation to the street. In this installation, Tessler complicates the duality of interior and exterior on a larger scale, creating a simultaneously public and inaccessible space, a conflation of image and objects that points beyond itself.